Editor’s Note: Please also take a look at Tom Nichols recent piece Welcome to Russian Nuclear Weapons 101.
After many months of provocative Russian missile tests, the United States has finally accused the Russian Federation of violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty is a landmark 1987 agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States that prohibits the possession on both sides of “theater” nuclear missiles – that is, weapons with a range too short to be considered part of a stable intercontinental strategic deterrent, but too long to be considered tactical arms for use on a battlefield during wartime. The treaty doesn’t actually ban any nuclear warheads themselves, but rather only any system capable of delivering them at distances between 500 and 5500 kilometers.
In terms of the military balance between East and West, none of this matters a whit. But in terms of what it says about how the Russians (and not just President Vladimir Putin) view a future war in Europe, it’s deeply troubling.
To understand all this, we have to go back to the Cold War, and think about why both the U.S. and the USSR found intermediate range nuclear missiles so worrisome. Although nuclear theology is no longer in fashion these days, there is no way to understand the gravity and danger of what Moscow is doing without reviewing why the INF Treaty exists in the first place.
During the Cold War, the USSR’s Warsaw Pact alliance was poised directly along the borders of America’s NATO allies in Europe. No matter what might start World War III, and no matter where in the world Soviet and Western forces would first collide, Soviet planners intended to move against Europe in order to bring the conflict back to an arena of overwhelming Soviet conventional dominance. (We thought about similar moves as well.) Accordingly, Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces were structured for a major offensive designed to capture swaths of then-West Germany, and then to drive on toward the Atlantic coast in the hopes of shattering NATO with a sudden, traumatic defeat.
The U.S. and NATO, of course, had no hope of stopping this kind of Soviet conventional attack. Outgunned and outnumbered, NATO’s strategy was to convince Moscow that the Alliance would have no choice but to blunt the Soviet invasion with the use of short-range nuclear weapons on the battlefield against the advancing Warsaw Pact columns. NATO’s hope was that the Kremlin, faced with no option but nuclear retaliation against the U.S. and its European partners, would realize it was gaining nothing by sparking an all-out nuclear war.
The Soviets – or at least the Soviet military – counted on NATO’s nuclear powers (the U.S., Britain and France) to make good on their threats: every Soviet military exercise until 1967 began with a simulated NATO nuclear strike. Subsequent exercises discarded this opening salvo, but all assumed eventual nuclear use, and thus stressed the need for speed and shock before the West could reach for the nuclear trigger. The Soviet regime for years promised never be the first to use nuclear weapons (as China does now, by the way), but in reality the Soviets were planning their own crippling tactical strikes on NATO communications, command and control, airfields, and other assets if they believed the military situation required them.
Both Washington and Moscow faced a conceptual problem with nuclear escalation. The Soviets, understandably, did not prefer to fight in a nuclear environment if they could help it, but NATO’s nuclear forces would be overrun in any Soviet invasion, making them “use or lose” weapons, and so Soviet success on the battlefield ran the risk of provoking the outcome they feared the most. The Americans, for their part, had tied U.S. strategic nuclear weapons to the defense of NATO, promising that escalation in Europe would lead to central nuclear war between the superpowers. This threat, however, required Moscow to believe that a U.S. president would jump from tactical nuclear war in Western Europe to strikes launched from U.S. submarines or from North America itself against the Soviet heartland.
Throughout the 1960s, both sides fielded short and intermediate range nuclear forces until Europe was bristling with nuclear arms. Despite their preference for a conventional conflict, however, the Soviets made a baffling blunder in the mid-1970s by deploying a mobile, multiple-warhead missile called the SS-20. This was supposedly only a replacement for older Soviet weapons in Europe, but those older systems were less accurate, and more importantly, relied on liquid fuel, which required hours of preparation. The new SS-20s, by contrast, represented a huge improvement in range and accuracy, and were powered by solid fuel boosters that made them available for use on almost instant notice. Every European capital was now in range of a theater nuclear system whose purpose was to paralyze NATO under the threat of immediate and accurate surprise nuclear attack.
This blunt threat was a mistake. NATO’s response was to upgrade its own theater missiles, a program initiated by Jimmy Carter and brought to fruition by Ronald Reagan. Along with ground-launched cruise missiles (which were relatively slow but were small and could fly under Soviet radar), the Americans deployed the Pershing II, an intermediate range ballistic missile that could reach the USSR from West Germany in a matter of minutes. These deployments were tremendously controversial in Europe, and sparked mass protests. But European leaders of both the right and left were sufficiently alarmed by the increased Soviet nuclear threat that the deployments continued in the early 1980s. (Even the French referred to the SS-20 as le grand menace.) This renewed sense of purpose in NATO – Vladimir Putin, take note – reversed years of Soviet diplomacy after the steady deterioration in relations between the U.S. and its NATO partners during the Vietnam-era 1970s.
The SS-20s and the Pershings were highly destabilizing weapons, reducing the time for a nuclear decision by U.S. or Soviet leaders during a conventional war to minutes, if not seconds. Each side felt deeply threatened, and understandably so. We now know that the Soviet military insisted on the SS-20 over the objections of the Soviet diplomatic establishment, who saw it as an unnecessary provocation. (They were right.)
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev inherited this mess from his predecessors, and he considered the responding U.S. Pershing deployments, as he later wrote in his memoirs, a “gun to the [USSR’s] head.” Reagan, for his part, had pushed the deployments despite his hopes – shared by Gorbachev – of eliminating all nuclear weapons. Both leaders – as part of the “triumph of improvisation,” to use James Wilson’s description of the way the Cold War ended – instead settled for getting rid of the most destabilizing arms in their inventories. The 1987 treaty was the first to eliminate an entire class of nuclear arms, rather than merely capping their numbers as in previous U.S.- Soviet arms treaties. The removal of these weapons created a breathing space for further negotiations in Europe, and helped pave the way to the end of the Cold War.
Why does any of this matter today? The Warsaw Pact no longer exists. Indeed, its members are now part of NATO. The conventional equation has been completely reversed, with Russia now the inferior conventional power, its armies no longer massed along NATO’s borders and completely incapable of a lighting dash to the Rhine, let alone the English Channel. NATO (as I have argued many times elsewhere) does not need tactical nuclear weapons, since their former targets are now in NATO itself. So what’s the point?
The danger is that Moscow may be coming back to theater-range nuclear weapons as some sort of imagined equalizer against NATO. Russia no longer has a strategy of blitzkrieg; rather, Russian military leaders fear that they will be defeated in any major conventional engagement, and so must rely on nuclear deterrence to prevent an enemy from taking advantage of a battlefield victory. This is the Kremlin’s bizarre strategy of “nuclear de-escalation,” in which the use of just a few nuclear weapons convinces a putative “aggressor” to back off.
This all raises the question of just why the Russians think they would have to fight, or why they’d be in such a dire situation in the first place. One possibility is that the Russian high command is so paranoid that it really believes that NATO – an alliance that can barely be bothered to engage in sanctions, much less war – would actually attack Russia. I knew Soviet officers during the Cold War who swore that they believed that NATO really would invade the Warsaw Pact even at something like a 1-to-6 inferiority, but it is hard to imagine that there is anyone in Russia’s senior ranks who still thinks that way.
A more likely explanation is that Russia’s military planners are trying to think through their options in case Russian conventional aggression fails and Russia ends up losing a war that Moscow started. Russian exercises as long ago as 1999 postulated kooky scenarios like a NATO land grab in the Baltic region. These games included a handful of nuclear strikes – including two against North America – that then terminated the conflict. If any Russian general really believes this is what would happen after a nuclear strike on the United States, we’re all in a lot more trouble than anyone realizes.